Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Lynn Sweet

4 takeaways from Chicago’s mayoral election between Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson

Chicago mayoral candidates Brandon Johnson, left, and Paul Vallas debate one another at CBS2 studios. Early returns in Tuesday’s runoff showed turnout low among the youngest voter cohort. (Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

WASHINGTON — Takeaways on Chicago’s mayoral election:


The runoff found Brandon Johnson galloping toward the center, moving away from his lefty tax-the-rich, defund-the-police pals who are alienating some liberal Democrats who don’t agree with extremist politics.

The runoff showed the more conservative Paul Vallas sprinting away from statements he made about abortion rights while distancing himself from the footsie he played with Republicans.  

This Chicago mayoral campaign rivals’ dash to the center is going to be instructive for national Democrats as President Joe Biden seeks a second term and Democrats try to reclaim the House and keep the Senate. Biden’s pragmatic approach to politics and policies is validated — just look at the pivots from the Vallas and Johnson campaigns.

Democrats can use this election as a cautionary case study: Middle-class, older Black voters, whom Democrats absolutely must have to keep the White House and control Congress, are not, writ large, that progressive, especially compared with Chicago’s white voters in the north lakefront wards.


The 2023 mayoral election solidified the Chicago Teachers Union as a major political power in the city. The union took the low-profile relative unknown Brandon Johnson — a paid CTU staffer who is also a Cook County Board member — and made him a contender. Johnson was viable because the CTU, the American Federation of Teachers and other unions — such as the SEIU — threw millions of dollars into the race.

Some analysts cast this race as the CTU versus the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union backing Vallas. That only goes so far.

The CTU has evolved into a political organization — with millions of dollars to spend on politics and its members an army of grass-roots field workers. The FOP does not run a political operation, never raised money for Vallas — not that he wanted it — and does not work the precincts.  

To watch: how the CTU buffs its machine as it recruits and bankrolls candidates who will run starting in 2025, for Chicago’s first elected school board.


Everyone I interviewed was shocked and puzzled when Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., jumped in the mayoral race, endorsing Vallas on March 26. He didn’t have to do it. He angered some progressives.

Not all endorsements are equal.

Brandon Johnson and Vallas each stacked up endorsements.

Durbin’s was the most important for Vallas because it addressed a central attack line against him: that he is a closet Republican. That point was made first by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and then picked up by Johnson in the runoff.

Enter Durbin, with friends in the Johnson and Vallas camps. Durbin is the number two Democrat in the Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair and one of the top Democrats in Illinois.

Durbin seldom endorses. He does so when it seems his backing can be impactful. He waited to see how things were playing out before he made his move. Durbin’s support for Vallas came at a crucial time — and after conversations with both rivals.

In one direct mail piece out in the last days of the campaign, the headline said Durbin “trusts Democrat” Vallas, with the copy on the other side stating that Durbin “knows” that Vallas is a “true Democrat.”

Attorney General Kwame Raoul was the only other statewide official to endorse in the Vallas/Johnson contest. Raoul coming out for Johnson was no surprise, as he comes out of the Johnson/Toni Preckwinkle political camp. Raoul, the state’s top legal official, was used to give cover to Johnson, on the defensive over whether he was soft on crime.


Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, two-time Democratic presidential candidate and political figure most popular with young voters, headlined a get-out-the-vote rally last week for Johnson. Sanders’ job was to turn out young voters for Johnson, who captured the support of Chicago’s youth. That is, if they voted.

A column I wrote last week noted that in the first round of mayoral balloting on Feb. 28, of those who voted, only 3.23% were between the ages of 18 and 24.

Early figures from the Chicago Board of Elections — pulled a few hours before polls closed Tuesday — showed that of those who cast a ballot, only 3.30% were between 18 and 24.

Nothing — not the ads, direct mail, digital appeals, robocalls, Bernie’s rally, nothing, triggered a jump in youth turnout.

And that is some takeaway — knowing that in two city elections now, the youngest people in Chicago just don’t want to vote.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.